Global Massage Outreach

Combining The Profession With Volunteerism

By Rebecca Jones

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, March/April 2010. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.

America’s massage therapists are well known for their dedication to volunteerism. This article illustrates the dynamic international outreach work provided by MTs who have successfully combined their love of their profession with their desire to travel around the globe.

Missions To Moldova

Every one of the eight medical mission trips that Seattle massage therapist Barbara Ingram has taken to the Eastern European nation of Moldova has been an adventure in hardship. Running water gets shut off, sometimes for days at a time. Elevators freeze, leaving people stuck inside. A walk down a rutted sidewalk is a twisted ankle just waiting to happen.

“It’s a developing world, and they lack a lot of comforts,” Ingram says. “But for some reason I enjoy putting myself in that situation. I guess I’m just a glutton for joy.”

Annually, Ingram leads a team of massage therapists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists on trips sponsored by Medical Teams International, based in Portland, Oregon, to this former Soviet republic, now the poorest country in Eastern Europe. They provide rehabilitation therapy primarily to children.

“We’ve done massage on young adults and juveniles, many with burns, but everything else as well,” Ingram says. “They’ve given us children with kidney stones and broken arms.”

For years, she and her husband, Tom, also a massage therapist, jointly led the trips. Tom made his last trip in July 2007 and died 10 days after their return. He was suffering from cancer and wished to spend his last days helping Moldovan children.

Mary Bryan, a massage therapist in Tacoma, Washington, and longtime massage instructor, joined one of the Moldovan mission trips, and recalled with fondness Pasha, a 13-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, who deeply touched her heart.

“I was having trouble getting him to cooperate, but I saw he was really watching the birds outside,” she says. “I asked him to imagine he was a bird and that he could fly. I had him visualize running to take off. I told him to push off with his legs and extend his arms. He and I went flying together!” she says. “I got him to do a lot of active movement for himself. I could assess not only his physical capacity, but was able to connect with him emotionally. I think Pasha was one of my biggest wins in my 25-year career.”

Cost to join the two-week trips typically ranges from $2,200-–$2,400, and therapists pay their own way. For information, contact Medical Teams International at or 800-959-4325. The faith-based organization sponsors medical missions to 24 countries, as well as missions within the United States.

From California To Cambodia

Heart Touch began with a Rolfer, Shawnee Isaac Smith, who had a friend dying of AIDS. When other bodyworkers were reluctant to work with her friend, she agreed to do it, and found the experience of working with someone in the final stages of life to be so profound that she began recruiting others.

“But she realized that people needed special training in how to work with the dying,” says Patrick Callahan, executive director of the organization based in southern California. “That was the beginning of Heart Touch in 1995. Now we’re coming up on our 15th anniversary.”

For many years, Heart Touch volunteers went into hospitals and hospices throughout California. But in 2006, a volunteer from Thailand suggested that Heart Touch volunteers could fill a dramatic need in that country, working with children either suffering from, or left orphaned by, AIDS. Estimates are that in 2000, more than 1 million children in this nation of 64 million people had lost at least one parent to AIDS.

In November of that year, Heart Touch took its first international trip to Thailand, sending 13 volunteers to visit orphanages to work with children. Eventually, they sponsored trips to Africa and to Cambodia, also to work with sick children and orphans.

“With children, we don’t do traditional massage, but we play massage games, so they get positive experiences with touch,” Callahan says. “But in the hospitals, we find people who are suffering a variety of illnesses, many with tuberculosis, so our work there is more like traditional massage.”

Heart Touch volunteers must first take a three-day training in the Heart Touch method. “It’s not a methodology or system of strokes. It’s really a way of approaching a client in a heartfelt, compassionate manner,” Callahan says. “The training is experiential as well as intellectual. The idea is for people to find out what it means to be a heartfelt presence, and how you deal with someone in the end-stage of life in a way that makes them feel honored and seen and cherished.”

The training costs $250 and counts for 20 continuing education hours. It is offered four times a year. Another two-day course on massage for medically fragile infants and children is also good preparation for the overseas trips. Cost for a two-week trip overseas is around $3,600. For information, contact Heart Touch at or 310-391-2558.

A Passion For Peru

The thing that Colorado massage therapist Angie Parris-Raney most noticed about the children she worked with on two volunteer massage mission trips to Peru was how starved for touch so many are.

“When one of them would fall down, and I’d go and hold them, they would just melt right into your hands and fall asleep,” says Parris-Raney, advertising sales representative for Massage & Bodywork and a massage therapist for eight years. “It was profound what touch could do for these kids, to console them.”

Parris-Raney made her first trip to Peru in 2008 with Cross Cultural Solutions, a New York-based nonprofit group that places more than 4,000 into volunteer programs in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe each year. She went to Ayacucho, a remote city that suffered the ravages of terrorism in the 1980s. She was placed in a wawa wasi, which means “baby house,” a day care center for children in the midst of extreme poverty.

There, she focused on teaching basic hygiene to the children, and in the afternoons worked with an Irish woman who provided massage to developmentally disabled children.

“I was hooked,” Parris-Raney says. “But I came home after that really depressed. I decided right then to go back.”

In late 2009, Parris-Raney took her second trip, this time to Cusco, though through a different agency. Rustic Volunteer, and local partner Maximo Nivel, placed her at Madre Teresa de Calcutta, an organization, run by nuns from Mother Teresa’s order, that takes in abandoned handicapped children. Parris-Raney was joined by volunteer physical therapists who provided treatment and exercises for the children.

“What was profound for me, again, was the fact that touch is so lacking for these children,” Parris-Raney says. “The sisters have extreme love for the children, and they are well fed and cared for. But they’re lacking the whole touch thing. It was challenging, because we were trying to fit in 12 kids in 90 minutes, and each one was starved for attention. There was one little girl who was partly blind and autistic, and you knew from the minute you touched her that she’d be clinging to you for the rest of the day.”

With two such trips under her belt, Parris-Raney is committed to making this a regular, perhaps annual, mission. “I’m going to keep going with it,” she says. “I already have plans to go back next year. I have a friend who is a tour guide down there who is interested in working with some of the more remote villages in the Andes.”

To learn more about Cross Cultural Solutions, visit or call 800-380-4777. For information about volunteer options available through Rustic Volunteer, visit or call 800-390-0233. Maximo Nivel can be contacted through

All The Way To Uzbekistan

When the people of Uzbekistan gained their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the most vulnerable members of society suffered most.

“The invalids, the senior citizens, the children. During the years of the Soviet Union, everything was provided through the government, from birth through pension, including school and then being placed in a job,” says Shukhrat Arifdjanev, Eurasia program manager for Medical Teams International (MTI) and a native of Uzbekistan. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it all disappeared.”

Today, volunteers from MTI—including massage therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and medical doctors—routinely visit an 320-resident orphanage in Tashkent, the capital city. “Most of them—75 percent—have simply been abandoned because of the economic situation,” Arifdjanev says. “Many of these children are disabled.”

The children, many with cerebral palsy, spinal deformities, mental disabilities, and autism, were largely warehoused. With ratios of 45 children per each caregiver, there was little in the way of rehabilitative services offered at the orphanage.

But since 2006, volunteers have been taking time away from their private practices to pay their own way to Uzbekistan to offer help to these children.

“The children have become more alert and healthier,” Arifdjanev says. “We’ve changed their world view. When we do rehab with them, we’re not only concerned about the medical piece, but the social as well. We play games with them. We do extracurricular activities with them.”

The volunteer therapists have also begun working with the caregivers—and, when they could be found, the parents of the children—to teach them rehabilitative techniques. “Maybe, with the success of this program, one day parents will get to take their children home,” Arifdjanev says. “Our goal will be fulfilled if there are no kids left in that orphanage.”

MTI, the same organization that sponsor’s Ingram’s trips to Moldova, annually sends two to three teams of volunteers into Uzbekistan, a nation of 27 million, roughly the size of California, that borders Afghanistan to the south. In 2008, the group received a $5,000 community service grant from the Massage Therapy Foundation to help defray travel expenses.

Travel costs to Uzbekistan typically range from $1,500–$1,700. Expenses for a two-week stay in the country average under $300. “So for $2,000, one person could change many lives,” Arifdjanev says.
Partial scholarships are available for therapists with financial need.